This review draws on the notion of “contract schemas” to characterize what ordinary people think is happening when they enter into contractual arrangements. It proposes that contracts are schematically represented as written documents filled with impenetrable text containing hidden strings, which are routinely signed without comprehension. This cognitive template, activated whenever people encounter objects with these characteristic features, confers certain default assumptions, associations, and expectancies. A review of the literature suggests that contract schemas supply (a) the assumption that terms will be enforced as written, (b) the feeling that one is obligated to perform, and (c) the sense that one has forfeited rights. Contract schemas should be of interest to legal scholars, because their psychological and behavioral effects often sit at odds with contract doctrine. Laypeople expect the law to find consent in situations where they would prefer it did not, and where it in fact does not. Contract schemas should also be of interest to ordinary consumers, who may find themselves relinquishing legally valid claims, erroneously assuming away rights, and/or blaming themselves. Future research should explore the consequences that flow from the lay perception that the law is rigidly formalistic to the detriment of fairness. Do such attitudes undermine the perceived moral authority of the law?
Annual Review of Law and Social Science